Tag Archives: Stan Mikita

R.I.P. Red Fisher

Red Fisher, the man we all knew had the best job on the planet, has died at age 91.

Red covered the Habs for the Montreal Star and Montreal Gazette, beginning in 1955 and ending in 2012, when he was 85-years old. He became one of the boys, part of the players’ and coaches’ inner circle, winning or losing money on card games while the trains took to the team to other big league cities.

His first hockey assignment was, amazingly enough, the night of the Richard Riot (March 17, 1955) at the Forum.

It had to have been an incredible time for Red, covering those Stanley Cup teams over the years and doing so in such fine and unique fashion, and at this time my thoughts go out to Red’s family and friends.

I can only add a bit of a personal story about Red.

In the early 1960s I was a kid at an exhibition game in Peterborough, Ontario between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks, and I approached Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who were standing by the boards, for autographs. Hull was more than happy to oblige, but Mikita was surly and miserable. I’ve always maintained that he told me to go to hell (or worse) but over the years I began to hope that he didn’t really get that harsh, that it was just me, because I was young, making too much of something.

I would like to say this… In no way is this to be taken that Stan Mikita was a bad person. In the beginning he was a little rough, but as the years went by, Mikita became a fine, friendly gentleman, a class act, and a legendary and deserving Hall of Famer.

After this incident in Peterborough, I wrote a letter to Red Fisher at the Montreal Star about it, and this is his reply back to me.

50 Or More; And That Curved Stick

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Up until this December 1964 Hockey Pictorial question was posed, just three players had ever scored 50 goals in a season – Maurice Richard in 1944-45, Bernie Geoffrion in 1960-61, and Bobby Hull during the 1961-62 season.

Who would finally score more than 50 in a season?

As you can see, five of the six players polled thought it would be Bobby Hull, while Jacques Laperriere figured Jean Beliveau would be the man.

The answer would come the following year, when yes indeed, it was Bobby Hull, who scored 54 in 65 games.

Hull would also bulge the twine 52 times in ’66-’67 and 58 in ”68-’69.

And how did the Golden Jet explain his talent for scoring? He mostly credited the introduction of the curved stick, which allowed him to blast howitzers at panic-stricken goaltenders. And although that’s a very credible explanation, it doesn’t do Hull complete justice. He was a beautiful skater, strong as an ox, and one of the greatest ever. The curved stick only added another huge element to Hull’s game.

Not long after Hull’s feats, the numbers would get out of hand. Phil Esposito would light the lamp 76 times in 1970-71, and during the 1980-81 campaign, eight players would score 50 or more, including Mike Bossy with 68 markers.

But it would be the 1981-82 season when goal scoring really blossomed, led by Wayne Gretzky, of course. Ten players cracked the 50-goal mark that year, with Gretzky notching an amazing 92 goals.

And back to the curved stick –

Andy Bathgate says it was he who was the first to use it, but it was Hull’s teammate Stan Mikita who is generally regarded as the inventor, although it came accidentally.

As explained in Bruce Dowbiggin’s book “The Stick,” Mikita’s stick cracked during practice, and he tried to break it and throw it away, but it wouldn’t snap completely. Mikita then jammed the stick into the door at the bench and it ended up looking like a boomerang.

While he waited for his trainer to get him another stick in the dressing room, which was several minutes away down the steps at the old Chicago Stadium, Mikita, out of anger, slapped a puck with the broken stick and the puck took off. He slapped another and it was the same thing. He was amazed, even at the new sound the puck made hitting the boards.

Back in the dressing room, Mikita started bending all his sticks, but they were breaking, until someone suggested making them wet first, which he did. He then left his new, curved sticks overnight, and the next day at practice he started shooting. The first shot was like a knuckler in baseball. It dropped and veered, and the next shot did all sorts of weird things too.

Bobby Hull was watching all this, and began bending his too.

Coach Billy Reay wasn’t impressed. He figured they wouldn’t be able to control their shots, and he was right. In Hull’s first game using this new banana blade, his first shot went right over the glass. In another game, Hull hit Ranger goalie Gump Worsley in the head, and when asked if he feared the curved blade, Worsley replied that he thought fans behind him were in more danger than him.

And about Andy Bathgate saying he was the first.

Bobby Hull said he always remembered Bathgate as having a bit of a curve to his sticks, even in the late ’50s, but it was Mikita who pioneered the whole idea of it. Bathgate has said that when Chicago was playing his Rangers one night, his trainer had lent Mikita one of Bathgate’s sticks (which is unusual to say the least), after the Hawk had run out of his own, and Mikita had liked the curved stick.

Mikita disagrees and talked to Bathgate about this, and in Dowbiggin’s book is quoted as saying, “I told Andy to his face that he’s – well, let’s say I talked to him about it. I might have borrowed some sticks, but I sure don’t remember any curve.”

And one final note: It was a Bathgate shot that smashed into Jacques Plante’s face, causing Plante to come back out wearing his mask for the first time during a game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summit ’72 “Aftermath”

Immediately following their stunning game-eight victory, Team Canada had to hit the road to Prague to play the Czechoslovakian national team the next night. This should have been better thought out by Hockey Canada, with an escape clause written into the contract. The team was both emotionally and physically spent, and it was unfair to subject them to this. It was time to go home, not play a meaningless game. They also felt it might take some of the lustre off the Russian Series, and they had absolutely nothing to gain and much to lose.

But the Prague game had to go on whether the team wanted it to or not.

Czech-born Stan Mikita, who was sent to live with an aunt in Canada when he seven, was named captain of Team Canada on this night, which was a classy and loving touch from coach Harry Sinden and others. Mikita had played just two games during the Summit, but in Prague it was his night. He was king. His mom and brothers and sisters were at the game, and Stan was given a long standing ovation.

As far as the game went, Canada pulled another one out of that, as they had shown often recently, by tying the game at three with just four seconds remaining, when Serge Savard stuffed it home.

And then it was time to come home.

Fifteen years after the fact, Team Canada and the Soviets played two games in celebration of the Summit Series, in Ottawa and in Hamilton. I was at the Ottawa game, and I remember being disappointed that the Soviets didn’t wear the same type of sweater that they had worn originally. And although both teams had the majority of original players in their lineups, Canada added Bill Barber, Gordie Howe, Mike Walton, Reggie Leach, Jacques Lemaire, and Darryl Sittler to the squad.

Six players, three from each team, have passed away. Bill Goldsworthy in 1996, Gary Bergman in 2000, and Rick Martin in 2011. The Russian bear, Alexander “Rags” Ragulin passed in 2004, and fellow defenceman Valeri Vasiliev died recently, in April of 2012.

And of course the great Valeri Kharlamov, killed, along with his wife, in a car crash outside of Moscow in 1981.

The “Father of Russian Hockey” Anatoli Tarasov, who had to step aside for the Summit Series, passed away in 1995, and his successor Vsevolod Bobrov, who coached the ’72 squad, died in 1979. Bobrov’s bench assistant Boris Kulagin checked out in 1988.

Sadly, John Ferguson, who was a force to be reckoned with not only in 1972 but throughout his career on and off the ice, left us in 2007. Fergie stayed beside Harry Sinden throughout the pressure cooker, and was a true inspiration as assistant coach. Some folks, however, might not agree with that moment in time when he advised Bobby Clarke that maybe Kharlamov needed a tap on the ankle.

Foster Hewitt signed off permanently in 1985. Sure he butchered Yvan Cournoyer’s name in the beginning of the series, but he got it right as he went along, and he did a fine job of describing the games for us in his own Foster Hewittian-way. Foster was 69 years old, had come out of retirement to call this series, and what a way to cap off a 40-plus year career, one that included coming up with such iconic catch-phrases as “He shoots, he scores!” and “Henderson scores for Canada!”

Many of the Canadian and Russian players became friends over the years, although Boris Mikhailov still might not win any popularity contests.

And say what you want about Alan Eagleson, but without him, the Russians may have gotten their way way too often, and there might not have even been a series in the first place.. Eagleson took care of business, and was the guy who got it done off-ice. Unfortunately, Eagle was later discovered to have stolen from the players association and various clients, and ended up doing six months in prison for fraud and embezzlement. He was also kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame, which must have been a cruel blow for the disgraced lawyer and player agent.

But he was immeasurably important for the 1972 Summit Series.

Red To Relax

Red Fisher, who covered the Habs from 1955 till 1979 for the Montreal Star, and then the Gazette from 1979 until now, has decided to retire. I have no idea why. He’s only 85 for cripes sakes.

And talk about Murphy’s Law. He’s going to be tending his garden next spring while the Habs are going all the way.

Thanks for your great work over the years, Red. Other than Playboy photographer, I think you had the best job on the planet.

 

Questions, Quayle, And A 1967 HNIC Promo

Is it October yet? Should the parade go by the old Forum? Why haven’t I been called by the team? How are the players’ wives holding up? Why is the sky blue? Is Gomez gone yet? Who’s hotter – Betty or Veronica? Why are mouthguards coloured? Will Brad Marchand be taking summer courses at Harvard?

And the thought for the day? A quote from ex-U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle. “It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”

Finding The Letters, Including Red’s

It’s unbelievable. I was going through a box yesterday and found some letters from the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, which were mostly replies to me about tickets. I thought they were long gone, and in fact it was only recently that I was thinking that I wished I still had some of these.

I’ll show some of these letters over the next while, but for now, I want to focus on one in particular.

In the early 1960’s I was an exhibition game in Peterborough, Ontario between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks, and I approached Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who were standing by the boards, for autographs. Hull was more than happy to oblige, but Mikita was surly and miserable. I’ve always maintained that he told me to go to hell, but over the years I began to hope that he didn’t really get that harsh, that it was just me, because I was young, making too much of something.

I would like to say this. In no way is this to be taken that Stan Mikita is a bad person. In the beginning he was a little rough, but as the years went by, Mikita became a fine, friendly gentleman, a class act, and a legendary and deserving Hall of Famer.

After this incident in Peterborough, I wrote a letter to Red Fisher at the Montreal Star about it, and this is his reply back to me. I thought it was long gone.

Me And Methuselah

I became 60 years old today. I know, it’s ridiculous. It’s way too old.

If this keeps up, I’ll catch Methuselah, who apparently lived until he was 969.

When I was born, on Oct. 4th, 1950, the Rocket had only played eight seasons with the Canadiens. He’d go on for another ten years after that. Dick Irvin was coaching the Habs when my mom gave birth to me, Gerry McNeil was the goaltender having replaced Bill Durnan, and it was three long years before Jean Beliveau put the sweater on.

I was born five years before the Richard Riot and nine years before Jacques Plante decided to wear a mask for the first time. I’ve been alive for 18 of the 24 Stanley Cups Montreal has won.

I’m really freaking old. But I’ve been told a few times that I have the passion of someone half my age.

World War ll had ended only five years before my birth. Hockey telecasts wouldn’t start until I was a two-year old, in 1952. I’m the same age as Tom Petty and Jay Leno, a year older than Guy Lafleur, and three years older than Bob Gainey.

But I want to confess something. I’m glad I’m this age and wouldn’t trade it for anything younger. I mean this. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, in great and exciting times, and among other things, watching the Original Six teams get it on. The first expansion didn’t happen until I was 17, and so my youth was seeing what many of you only read about. 

I ate dinner with the Leafs (I know, the Leafs) at their training camp in Peterborough when I was 13. I saw the Rocket play live, as well as Jacques Plante and Doug Harvey and the rest. At one game in Toronto, my dad corralled Toe Blake and had him go into the dressing and get Doug Harvey’s autograph for me.

I saw Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Tim Horton, Stan Mikita, Bernie Geoffrion, Phil Esposito, Terry Sawchuk, Dickie Moore and all those old greats play, either live or on TV, and I was a 21 year bartender working in Sudbury when the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series was held.  And while in my 30’s I spent an evening drinking beer with an old man named Aurele Joliat.

When I was 13, the Beatles came to America for the first time and played the Ed Sullivan Show. And in the summer of 1966 when I was 15, I saw the Beatles live in Toronto.

I was a teenager when all that classic rock you know the words to was fresh and new. I went to the Atlantic City Pop Festival held two weeks before Woodstock and saw a very similiar lineup as in Woodstock, and I was a 22 year old in the crowd at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum in 1973 enjoying Led Zeppelin.

You’re doing your own thing now, seeing your own players you’ll tell your grandkids about, and singing along to your own music. I say savour everything, because believe me, from the bottom of my heart, you’ll be 60 before you know it.

But don’t despair. Getting older isn’t a bad thing at all. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

Ron And Dennis’ Excellent Adventure

The other day the phone rang and it was my old friend Ron Clarke, and although he lives in the Kitchener/Waterloo area, he was in Vancouver visiting his 34 year old daughter who has terminal lung cancer.

Ron and I go back further than any other of my other friends as we were childhood buddies and schoolmates and we played road hockey and  held on to bumpers of cars and got free rides as the unsuspecting drivers made their way through snowy streets. He and I traded hockey cards, smoked our first cigarettes together, went through minor hockey, and he started hanging around with a girl in grade seven and ended up marrying her after they dated for about ten years.

Ron and I went our separate ways because he was a straight-laced guy who wanted no part of what was happening with the counter-culture in the 1960’s, and I was the opposite. But we always remained friends over the years anyway.

After talking to Ron, I remembered a time when we were 12 year old altar boys and one of the priests was not only the big shot priest, the Monsignor, but he also somehow had a connection to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It might have something to do with St. Michael’s College in Toronto but I’m not sure. 

Monsignor Lee asked Ron and I one day if we’d like to go to Peterborough for the day and visit the Leafs in training camp, and off we went. Turns out Monsignor Lee had more than just a slight connection with the Leafs. It was almost like he was part of them.

In the afternoon, we had dinner with the team, for gawd’s sakes, although the players, Keon, Horton, Mahovlich, Baun, Pulford and the rest were on the other side of the room. Ron and I sat at a table with King Clancy and Jim Gregory, and the two of them, with the Monsignor, told old stories about when they did this and when they did that, and although I don’t recall any of the conversations, I can still picture  Clancy being really funny and Jim Gregory doing most of the talking.

Later on, we had primo seats at the Peterborough arena to see the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks play an exhibition game and we went down to the boards and got Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita’s autographs.

Then, back to Orillia we went, an hour away.

Back to the present. I spoke briefly on the phone with Ron’s daughter, Jocelyne, and I told her she was going to beat her lung cancer. She said that’s not what any of her doctor’s have told her.

Addendum:

Ron and I also went to Barrie at about the same age as when we went to Peterborough, and he and I helped the AHL Buffalo Bisons trainer and stood behind the bench as stick boys for an exhibition game between the Bisons and Rochester Americans. Don Cherry played for Rochester but it didn’t matter at that time, (I only know because I still have the lineup sheet), and the only players who made an impact on me where Gilles Marotte, Billy Dea, and Fred Stanfield.

I also remember Ron and I coming home from playing hockey at the arena in Orillia and noticed the Habs-Leafs on TV in someone’s living room. So we sat outside the window and watched the game without the people knowing.

The Next Ralph Backstrom Somehow Got Missed

I’ve said it many times before, that if there was one player on the Montreal Canadiens I wanted to play like, it would have been Ralph Backstrom.

How could I not want to be like Backstrom? A minor hockey sensation in his hometown of Kirkland Lake, he captained the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens to a Memorial Cup win, and was considered the top junior in the whole country. In his debut season with the Canadiens, he was rookie of the year, and he ended up winning six Stanley Cups.

He also had a really pretty wife and sported a short hair style I tried to get my barber to copy on my head.

I knew in my heart I would never be a Rocket or Beliveau, so Backstrom was the one I watched closely and tried to mirror in style. He wasn’t big but he was lightning fast, and I wasn’t big and sort of fast. I would crouch to take face offs just the way he did when he lined up against Keon and Mikita and the others, and I knew that any day the scouts would knock on my door because I reminded them of Ralph Backstrom.

But it never happened and I don’t understand it. I thought I was doing everything right.

Kane Scores Overtime Cup Winner

I always wanted to say that – “Kane Scores Overtime Cup Winner.”  Unfortunately, in real life it was Patrick Kane, not me.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the new champions of hockey on the strength of Kane’s slightly-soft goal that found its way through Michael Leighton, and have finally put to bed the “haven’t won since 1961” label. It’s a team of Kane and Toews and Byfuglien and Keith and Seabrooke instead of Hull and Mikita and Pilote and Wharram and Vasko, and these young fellows are now the toast of the Windy City.

Forty-nine years is a long time to go between championship heroes. Montreal will be ending an 18-year drought next year and that’ll be long enough.

It’s a good, young team, these Hawks, and most expected them to beat the Philadelphia Flyers and they did, although the Flyers hung in there and almost added to their miraculous fairy tale that saw them rally from a 3-0 deficit against Boston and become only the third team in history to pull this off.

So good for the Flyers. But they also eliminated the Habs so I’m not going to get carried away with any gushing praise.

Random Notes;

Watching the Flyers go down the corridor to the ice before the game made me think of the Habs and how fantastic it would have been if it was them instead of Philly.

The refs were calling borderline penalties for most of the first half of the game, then put the whistle away. One would think that maybe, just maybe, these zebras got a special call from their superiors telling them to cool it because they were ruining a special night.

Tomorrow I tell you about my Marian Hossa movie script idea that is now on the scrap heap.